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Palm Beach’s Fashion History Focus of New Exhibit

Lilly Pulitzer is forever synonymous with Palm Beach fashion, but the exhibition “Endless Summer: Palm Beach Resort Wear” covers the bigger picture. On view at the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum through May 25, and guest curated by vintage collector and expert Cameron Silver, it culls about 120 pieces spanning the history of the island, from Henry Flagler’s arrival at the turn of the century and its development into the American Riviera to today’s caftans.

“Palm Beach is the birthplace of the resort category in the modern era,” said Silver. “A Northerner completely abandons her all-black wardrobe when crossing the bridge for the season and pivots to bold prints and colors.”

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He and the museum’s chief curator Debi Murray and research director Rose Guerrero climbed through closets up to the minute of the opening. The major group effort involves designers, extant and defunct stores, society clothes horses like Iris Apfel, Jane Holzer and Jean Shafiroff, and a slew of fashion houses, collections and archives. Local resident Tommy Hilfiger narrates an introductory video attired in Palm Beach’s signature aesthetic that often serves as inspiration for the namesake brand he founded; a similar women’s outfit by Tommy Hilfiger is featured.

Palm Beach Resort Wear Exhibit
“Endless Summer: Palm Beach Resort Wear” exhibit.

A recent windfall for the museum that’s a prominent part of the show resulted when New York and South Florida retailer Martha Phillips’ grandson permanently donated the family’s archives of photographs, invitations and other ephemera. The cache includes a large-scale version of Gideon Lewin’s photograph for W Magazine that depicts Phillips’ daughter and successor Lynn Manulis surrounded by then next-gen designers Mark Badgley, James Mischka, Zang Toi, Joanna Mastroianni, Jeanette Kastenberg, Christian Francis Roth, Josie Natori and Randolph Duke. Many of them have pieces dating to the ’90s on display that offer a completely different take on resort wear than pink and green prints. Manulis mastered the thrill of the hunt for emerging talent from her mother.

“As one of the most philanthropic parts of the country, Palm Beach incubated a lot of local talent and the legendary retailer Martha Phillips was instrumental in the development of the businesses of some of the most heralded names of 20th-century fashion such as Valentino, Bill Blass and Halston,” said Silver.

Each designer’s link to the locale is told through a vignette of current and vintage fashion or both as well as text and ephemera. A vintage Valentino coatdress in an archival logo print that the brand reintroduced in a recent collection, according to Silver, is complemented by a photo collage of Valentino with Manulis, his fashion shows for her store and dining with his partner Giancarlo Giammetti.

Silver was happy to secure Roth’s M&M’s jacket and a never-before-displayed caftan among a multidecade grouping of the silhouette in various prints and embellishments by Oscar de la Renta. Other designers include Zandra Rhodes, Chanel, Arnold Scaasi, Patrick Kelly, Lisa Perry, Carolina Herrera, Gucci, James Galanos, St. John, Pucci, Pauline Trigère, Norman Norell, Lilly Pulitzer and fellow Palm Beacher Philip Hulitar, a longtime promoter of fashion and preservation on the island. Stubbs & Wootten slippers and Buccellati jewelry speak to the market’s must-have accessories, while Florida-based specialty chain Maus & Hoffman represents the local menswear aesthetic such as a blue and white regatta blazer by Bullock & Jones.

Carrie Bradburn/CAPEHARTPalm Beach Resort Wear Exhibit
“Endless Summer: Palm Beach Resort Wear” exhibit.

“I never knew that Maus & Hoffman travels to Italy to create its own custom pieces. It’s fascinating that a local store goes to such extremes,” said Murray.

Describing himself as a perpetual student, Silver said he learned that Saks Fifth Avenue opened its second store in 1926 in Palm Beach. History buffs can dive deeper with the show’s maximalist approach that extends from mannequins to walls chock-full of timelines about the island’s evolution and insider tidbits about retail and celebrity lore and memorable galas and luncheons of yesteryear. Blown-up graphics, lifestyle photos and signature prints further immerse viewers.

“Palm Beach taught people how to ‘dress up’ when their world-weary defenses were down, and vacation chic became their mode for the season,” said Silver. “This has only grown with each decade but skyrocketed in the last few years.”

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